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       Cronos, p.26

           Robert Silverberg
 

  “I really don’t know,” said Quellen. “Her husband’s had some medical training. Not a doctor, just a technician, but if there’s anything wrong with her he ought to be able to diagnose it. If he’s got his wits still working. The rest of him certainly isn’t.”

  “That’s a trifle unfair, CrimeSec. I’m sure Mr. Pomrath would be happy to work more often. Why, Iknowit. No one likes to be idle. Your sister says he’s really suffering. In fact—” the shopkeeper leaned close to whisper conspiratorially “—I shouldn’t be telling you this, maybe, but there’s some bitterness about you in that family. They think that perhaps, with your political influence—”

  “I can’t do a thing for them! Not a thing!” Quellen realized he was shouting. What business was it of this damned shopkeeper’s that Norman Pomrath was out of work? How dare he meddle like this? Quellen struggled for calm. He found it, somehow, apologized for his outburst, quickly left the supply shop.

  He stepped out into the street for a moment and stood watching as the multitudes streamed past. Their clothes were of all designs and colors. They talked incessantly. The world was a beehive, vastly overpopulated and getting more so daily, despite all the restrictions on childbirth. Quellen longed for the quiet retreat he had built at such great cost and with so much trepidation. The more he saw of crocodiles, the less he cared for the company of the mobs who swarmed the crowded cities.

  It was an orderly world, of course. Everybody numbered, labelled, registered, and tagged, not to say constantly monitored. How else could you govern a world of eleven or twelve or maybe thirty billion people without imposing a construct of order on them? Yet Quellen was in a fine position to know that within that superficial appearance of order, all sorts of shamelessly illegal things went on—not, as in Quellen’s case, justifiable efforts to escape an intolerable existence, but shady, vicious, unpardonable things. Take the drug addictions, he thought. There were laboratories in five continents grinding out new drugs as fast as the old addictions were abolished. Right now they were pushing somekind of deathly alkaloids, and they pushed them in the most flagrant ways. A man walks into a sniffer palace hoping to buy half an hour of innocent hallucinatory amusement, and buys a hellish addiction instead. Or, aboard a quickboat, a man’s hand traverses a woman’s body in what seems like something no more deplorable than an indecent caress, but two days later the woman discovers she has developed an addiction, and must seek medical help to find out what it is she’s addicted to.

  Things like that, thought Quellen. Ugly, inhuman things. We are a dehumanized people. We injure one another without any need but the simple need to do injury. And when we turn to each other for help, we get no response but fear and withdrawal. Stay away, stay away! Let me alone!

  And consider this Lanoy, Quellen ruminated, fingering the minislip in his pocket. Some kind of crookedness going on there, yet it was concealed well enough to have avoided the attention of the Secretariat of Crime. What did the computer files say about Lanoy? How did this Lanoy manage to hide his illegal activities from his family or roommates? Surely he did not live alone. Such an outlaw could not be Class Seven. Lanoy must be some shrewd prolet, running a free-enterprise swindle for his own private benefit.

  Quellen felt a strange kinship with the unknown Lanoy, much as it repelled him to admit it. Lanoy, too, was beating the game. He was a wily one, possibly worth knowing. Quellen frowned. Quickly he moved on, back to his apartment.

  6.

  Peter Kloofman lay sprawled out in a huge tube of nutrient fluid while the technicians changed his left lung. His chest panel was open on its hinges, exactly as though Kloofman were some sort of robot undergoing repair. He was no robot. He was mere mortal flesh and blood, but not very mortal. At the age of a hundred thirtytwo, Kloofman had undergone organ replacements so frequently that there was very little left of his original persona except for the gray slab of his wily brain itself, and even that was no stranger to the surgeon’s beam. Kloofman was willing to submit to such things gladly, for the sake of preserving his existence, which is to say his infinite power. He was real. Danton was not. Kloofman preferred to keep things that way.“David Giacomin is here to see you,” purred a voice from the probe riveted just within his skull.

  “Admit him,” said Kloofman.

  Some twenty years ago he had had himself reconstructed so that he could carry on the business of the stateeven while undergoing regenerative surgery. It would have been impossible to remain in power, otherwise. Kloofman was the only flesh-and-blood member of Class One, which meant that all power lines converged toward him. He delegated as much as he could to the assortment of cams and relays that went by the name of Benjamin Danton; but Danton, after all, was unreal, and in the long run even he was only an extension of the tireless Kloofman. It had not always been this way. Before the Flaming Bess affair there had been three members of Class One, and still further back Kloofman had been but one of five.

  He carried on satisfactorily this way, however. And there was no reason why he could not continue to bear his unique burden for another six or seven hundred years. No man in all the history of the world had held the power Peter Kloofman held. In his occasional moments of fatigue he found that a comforting thing upon which to reflect.

  Giacomin entered. He stood in a position of relaxed attentiveness beside the nutrient tub in which Kloofman lay. Kloofman valued Giacomin highly. He was one of perhaps two hundred Class Two individuals who provided the indispensable underpinning for the High Government. Between Class Two and Class Three was a qualitative gulf. Class Two understood the way the world was run; Class Three, on the other hand, enjoyed great comforts, but no true understanding. To a Class Three surgeon or administrator, Danton was probably real, and other unnamed Class Ones existed as well. Giacomin, privy to the knowledge a Class Two man had, was aware of the truth.

  “Well?” Kloofman asked, watching with detached interest-as the surgeons lifted the gray, foamy mass of the replacement lung and inserted it in his gaping chest cavity. “What’s the story for today, David?”

  “Hoppers.”

  “Have they located the process yet?”

  “Not yet,” said Giacomin. “They’re taking steps, though. It won’t be long.”

  “Good, good,” murmured Kloofman. This enterprise of illicit time travel troubled him more than he cared to admit. For one thing, it went on despite the best efforts of the government to track it to its source, and that was bothersome. But of course it was only a few days since Kloofman had requested a detect on the operation, anyway. Much more annoying was the fact that for all his power he could not reach out instantly, seize this temporal process, and put it to his own uses. It had been developed independently of the instrumentalities of the High Government. Thus it was a conspicuous reminder to Kloofman that not even he was omnipotent.

  Giacomin said, “There’s a problem. They’ve thought of isolating a potential hopper and keeping him from making the jump.”

  Kloofman moved convulsively in his bath. Fluid splashed into his chest cavity. Homeostatic pumps imperturbably removed it, and a surgeon clamped his lips together and went about the job of stapling the new lung in place without comment. The world leader said, “A listed hopper? One who’s been recorded?”

  “Yes.”

  “Have you permitted this?”

  “I brought it to you. I’ve got a hold on it until The Word comes down.”

  “Kill it,” said Kloofman decisively. “Beyond a doubt. I go further: make absolutely certain that there’s no interference with any listed hoppers. Take that as a flat rule.

  Anyone who has left must leave. Yes? That’s The Word, David. It goes out to all departments that are even remotely connected with the hopper business.”

  As he spoke, Kloofman felt a faint stinging sensation in the fleshy part of his left thigh. Sedation; he must be getting too excited. The automatic monitoring system was compensating by chemical means, dilating arteries, flooding his system with useful enzymes. He could do be
tter than that. Consciously, he willed himself to be calm even in the face of this threat. Giacomin looked concerned.

  Kloofman grew tranquil. Giacomin said, “That was all I wanted to report. I’ll pass your instructions along.”

  “Yes. And notify the Danton programmers. Anything going through his office should carry the same notification. This is something too important to let slide. I don’t understand how I failed to anticipate the possibility.”

  Giacomin departed, making his way carefully around the tank and out of the faintly clammy atmosphere of the chamber. Kloofman eyed the green vitreous walls with displeasure. He realized that he should have been forewarned. It was the job of those in Class Two to plot the pitfalls for him in advance, and they had been cognizant of the hopper problem for some time now. As far back as ’83, contingency schedules had been drawn to deal with the hopper problem. Why had they not includedthis?Of all things to forget!

  Kloofman forgave himself for overlooking it. The others,though—they were in for a declassing.

  Out loud he said, “Imagine what could have happened if anybody had begun meddling with the registered and documented hoppers. Pulling chunks out of the past—why, it might have turned the world upside-down!”

  The surgeons did not reply. It would be worth their classifications if they ever spoke to Kloofman except on matters of their own sphere of professional competence. They closed his chest and ran anemostats over it. The instant healing process began. The temperature in the nutrient bath beganto descend as the automatic regulators prepared Kloofman for his return to independent motility.

  He was badly shaken, not by postoperative shock—that was unknown these days—but by the implications of what had almost happened. Meddling with the past! Pulling hoppers from the matrix! Suppose, he thought fretfully, some bureaucrat in Class Seven or Nine or thereabouts had gone ahead on his own authority, trying to win a quick uptwitch by dynamic action, and had rounded up a few known hoppers in advance of their departure. Thereby completely snarling the fabric of the time-line and irrevocably altering the past.

  Everything might have been different, Kloofman thought.

  I might have become a janitor, a technician, a peddler of fever pills. I might never have been born. Or I might have landed in Class Seven with Danton real and in charge. Or there might have been total anarchy, no High Government whatsoever. Anything. Anything. A wholly different world. The transformation would have come like a thief in the night, and the editing of the past would naturally be indetectable, so that I would never know there had been a change in my status. Perhaps there had already been several changes, Kloofman thought suddenly.

  Was it possible?

  Had two or three hoppers already been thwarted in their documented escapes by some zealous official? And had fundamental changes in the historical patterns of the past five centuries resulted, changes that could never be observed? Kloofman felt an abrupt and fatiguing sense of the instability of the universe. Here he was, two thousand feet down in the solid earth, living as always at the bottom of civilization, for the High Government was the lowest level occupied, and he had known absolute power for decades of akind never remotely comprehended by Attila or Genghis Khan or Napoleon or Hitler, and yet he could feel the roots of the past ripping loose like torn strings about him. It sickened him. Some faceless individual, a mere government man, could wreck everything in a harmless blunder, and there was nothing Kloofman could do to prevent it from happening. It might already have begun to happen.

  I should never have embarked on this hopper enterprise, Kloofman thought.

  But that was wrongheaded, he knew. He had done the right thing, but he had done it carelessly, without full consideration of the danger factors. Before turning his bureaucracy loose on catching the shipper of time-hoppers, he should have issued strict orders concerning interference with the past. He trembled at the thought of the vulnerability he had opened for himself. At any time since 2486, his entire edifice of power, so laboriously constructed over so many years, could have been wrecked by the blind whim of an underling.

  The stabs of a dozen homeostatic injections reminded Kloofman that he was losing his calmness again.

  “Get me Giacomin,” he said.

  The viceroy entered a few moments later, looking puzzled at the peremptory recall. Kloofman leaned heavily forward, straining himself half out of the tank, causing the servomechanisms within his body to whine in tinny protest. “I just wanted to make certain,” he said, “that there was full understanding of my instruction.Nointerference with hopper departures. None. None whatever. Clear?”

  “Of course.”

  “Do I worry you, David? Do you think I’m a garrulous old man who ought to have his brain scraped? Let me tell you why I worry about this thing. I control the present and to some extent the future, right? Right. But not the past.How can I control the past? I see a whole segment of time that’s beyond my authority. I admit to being frightened. Maintain my authority over the past, David. See that it remains inviolate. What has happened must happen.”

  “I’ve already taken steps to see that it will,” said Giacomin.

  Kloofman dismissed him a second time, feeling reassured but not sufficiently so. He summoned Mauberley, the Class Two man in charge of running the Danton operation. As one who considered himself a quasi-immortal, Kloofman did not spend much time designating heirs apparent, but he had high respect for Mauberley, and regarded him as a possible eventual successor. Mauberley entered. He was sixty years old, vigorous and muscular, with a flat-featured face and wiry, thick hair. Kloofman briefed him on the new development. “Giacomin is already at work on the problem,” he said. “You work on it too. Redundancy, that’s the secret of effective government. Get Danton to make an official proclamation. Circulate it downward through Class Seven. This is an emergency!”

  Mauberley said, “Do you believe there have already been changes in the past as a result of contra-hopper activity?”

  “No. But there could be. We’d never know.”

  “I’ll deal with it,” he said, and left.

  Kloofman rested. After a while, he had himself withdrawn from his nutrient bath and taken to his office. He had not been to the surface in sixteen years. The upper world had become slightly unreal to him; but he saw no harm in that, since he was well aware that to most of the inhabitants of the upper worldhewas slightly unreal, or more than slightly. Reciprocity, he thought. The secret of effective government. Kloofman lived in a complex of interlocking tunnels spreading out for hundreds of miles. At any given time, machines with glittering claws were energetically at workextending his domain. He hoped to have the world girdled with a continuous network of High Government access routes in another ten years or so. His personal Midgard Serpent of transportation. Strictly speaking, there was no need for it; he could govern just as effectively from a single room as from any point along a world-rimming tunnel. But he had his whims. What was the use of being the supreme leader of the entire world, Kloofman wondered, if he could not occasionally indulge a small whim?

  He moved on purring rollers to the master control room and allowed his attendants to attach him to contact leads. It bored him to depend on words for his knowledge of external events. One of the many surgical reconstructs that had been performed on him over the years allowed a direct neural cut-in; Kloofman could and did enter directly into the data stream, becoming a relay facet of the computer web itself. Then, only then, did a kind of ecstasy overwhelm him.

  He nodded, and the flow of data began.

  Facts. Births and deaths, disease statistics, transportation-correlations, power levels, crime rates. Synapse after synapse clenched tight as Kloofman absorbed it all. Far above him, billions of people went through their daily routines, and he entered in some way into the life of each of them, and they entered into his. His perceptions were limited, of course. He could not detect individual fluctuations in the data except as momentary surges. Yet he could extrapolate them. At this very instant, he kn
ew, a hopper was departing for the past. A life subtracted from the present. What about mass? Was it conserved? The possibility of a sudden and total subtraction. Two hundred pounds abruptly removed from now and thrust into yesterday—how could it be possible, Kloofman wondered? It was done, though. The records showed it. Thousands of hoppers thrust out of his time and into the time of his predecessors. How? How?

  Peter Kloofman brushed the thought from his throbbing mind. It was an irrelevancy. What was relevant was the sudden, unthinkable possibility that the past might be altered, that all this might be taken away from him in a random fluctuation against which no defense existed. That struck horror into him. He filled his brain with data to drown out the possibility of total loss. He felt the onset of his delight.

  Caesar, did you ever have the whole world running through your brain at once?

  Napoleon, could you so much as imagine what it might be like to be plugged right into the master computers?

  Sardanapalus, were there joys like this in Nineveh?

  Kloofman’s bulky body quivered. The mesh of fine capillary wires just beneath his skin glowed. He ceased to be Peter Kloofman, world leader, lone human member of Class One, benevolent despot, sublime planner, the accidental inheritor of the ages. Now he was everyone who existed. A flux of cosmic power surged in him. This was the true Nirvana! This was the ultimate Oneness! This was the moment of full rapture!

  At such a time, it was not possible to brood on how easilyit could all be taken away from him.

  7.

  Helaine Pomrath said, “Norm, who’s Lanoy?”“Who?”

  “Lanoy. L—A—N—”

  “Where did you hear that name?”

  She showed him the minislip and watched his face carefully. His eyes flickered. He was off balance.

  “I found this in your tunic last night,” she said. “‘Out of work, see Lanoy,’it says. I just wondered who he was, what he could do for you.”

 
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